The last twenty years have seen a dramatic rise in the influence of extremist groups, particularly the Taliban, in Pakistan. Though the state has been linked in some way to Islam from the time of its creation in 1947, it has only been since the 1980s that fundamentalism has grown enough to seriously threaten the state and become one of Pakistan’s defining characteristics.
This development can be explained by the Pakistani government’s instrumental use of religious empowerment both to enhance domestic legitimacy and to justify foreign policy (particularly involvement in Afghanistan), and the ideological blow back of this decades-long policy.
While resources and support were provided to religious institutions, groups, and leaders to strengthen the state, this ultimately backfired: religious networks became uncontrollable and, ironically, now pose one of the biggest threats to consolidated nationhood, internal stability, and effective development. Pakistani military and intelligence have used religious parties for decades as convenient instruments for keeping domestic political opponents at bay and also for adventures in foreign policy.
Pakistan’s Historical Relationship with Islam
Pakistan was formally created on August 14, 1947, under the tutelage of the Muslim League. From this date until 1956, Pakistan was led by a civil government that placed little overt emphasis on Islam. The military coup in that year, however, put Ayub Khan in power, whose rule “deepened divisions between a secular and westernised ruling class and a mass of people living according to time honoured Indo-Islamic traditions. This sowed the seeds of potential radicalisation in the future.
Though Ayub Khan did not promote Islam to the forefront of public policy, he did not definitely solve the riddle of its place in Pakistan. His military successor Yahya Khan (1969-71) was preoccupied with a devastating cyclone and a civil war in the East in 1971, leaving little time to resolve the Islam question.
While the story of Bangladeshi separation in 1971 is important to understanding Pakistan, an in-depth account of the event is beyond the scope of this article. However, it encouraged a geo-political re-orientation towards the Muslim Middle East, and highlighted the weakness of Pakistani nation identity, encouraging leaders to seek channels through which to solidify it. Economic grievances and a blatant power imbalance pushed the East to separate with the help of India in December of Khan’s last year as ruler.
Civilian rule resumed under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1972-77), who began a practice that would be radicalized following the pivotal 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: subverting Pashtun tribal structures, a process that entailed extremists taking political control of a district, replacing them with conservative politico-religious leadership cells.
Many of the original architects of the Islamization of Northern Pakistan believed that they could eventually re-create the traditional elder-based social system once the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan. This hope turned out to be highly misguided.
It was Zia-ul-haq—the country’s third military president—who seized power in July 1977 and dramatically injected religion into Pakistani politics and society at all levels. Since his ascension to power, Pakistan has undergone a cultural revolution: religion is now embedded in daily life.
In 1985, he proposed the Shari’at Bill: Giving power to interpretations of Shari’ah in all areas of state policy, enhancing its authority in the judicial system, and elevating the Qur’an as the country’s supreme law. Though this was not passed into law until 1991, its influence was evident immediately. At this time, the Jamaat-e-Islami—a fundamentalist Islamic group founded in 1941 in opposition to nationalism, which it condemned as a Western conspiracy— encouraged a move from an ethical to a legalistic approach to Pakistan’s Muslim identity.
Education and military were key pillars of religious empowerment, both intended to shore up government support and fill the ideological and nationalistic void present in the weak Pakistani state.
Madrassas—religious education centres— were now revived and altered from locally controlled and funded to state-managed and monitored: making religious learning politicized, modernized, and militarized institutions that. In time, these would radically challenge state’s right to control policy-making, interpret Islam, and define the parameters of Pakistani nationalism.
Traditionally, ulama (religious scholars) were reluctant to get involved in politics but their opposition to modernisation and encouragement from government altered this tendency. The scope of madrassas has broadened, while the number has increased manifold since 1980. Zia’s Islamicization program raised the status of ulamas and mullahs, opening new opportunities for them in public affairs. They became increasingly wealthy and powerful, and occupational affiliation with Islamic institutions became economically gratifying—a change that would eventually pit religious leaders as challengers of the state that had expected continuing obedience for this empowerment.
Note that students left madrassas with only a base knowledge of the world coupled with a rigid belief in the supremacy of Islam and their responsibility to play a role in its spread. This fact has become particularly de-stabilizing for Pakistan’s internal and external relations over the years.
The military has been a second fundamental institution promoting extremism. Zia, himself a high-ranking military officer, encouraged the army to act as guardian of ‘ideological’ frontiers of the Muslim community, whose limits would be set by the shariah. In this way, application of force could be legitimized through religion, and ventures in India and Afghanistan strengthened and supported.
The army began to align itself more closely with Islamic symbols and increase recruitment from lower classes, which were more prone to religious radicalisation out of a real desire for change.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan motivated further Islamization in its militant form. The Afghan Civil War eroded popular attachment to local hierarchies of rural and tribal society and to the land, replacing conceptions of familial religion with a global, all-encompassing struggle in which a strict, literal reading of Islamic law was favoured.
It was also during this conflict that involvement of militant Islamic groups with senior military leadership and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was cemented. Certain scholars go as far as to argue that the collaboration of military and Islamists has been the primary force advancing Islamic ideology, and it is certainly true that Pakistani help to the Taliban’s military force, (the provision of camps, weapons, and funds) has been well-documented. Arguably, as the army is Pakistan’s only modern institution and the backbone of the Pakistani state, its patronage (institutional and financial support), is extremely influential in the empowerment of religious leaders.
While the 1979 Iranian Revolution is occasionally cited as a catalyst for religious fanaticism in Pakistan, it was nowhere near as influential as the geographically and culturally closer Afghanistan, and serves as more of an excuse to hide the fundamentally instrumental nature of Islamic policies in Pakistan. However, the Revolution did radicalize the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the nation, adding to the instability and grievances felt by Pakistanis that pushed them to join militant groups.
After Zia’s unexpected death in 1988, the policies he had undertaken to support Islam in attempts to buffer the state from criticism proved to have a long lasting and substantial influence. Islamic legal provisions were used by zealous Islamists to implement their personal views, and mullahs incited protests against women’s photographs displayed on billboards—the state’s authority diffused steadily since the 1980s.
Civilian leader Benazir Bhutto, daughter of former leader Zulfikar, became Prime Minister in 1988 and spent the next decade fighting for power with Nawaz Sharif amidst the deteriorating economic situation. Political squabbles took time and energy away from the nation’s pressing developmental problems. With the tendency now entrenched, they continued to use jihadist groups as strategic assets, supporting them in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Politicians were led to justify their control over the state by appealing to Islam, which created a feedback loop that made control increasingly precarious. A clear indication of this was that when General Pervez Musharraf defined his agenda to make Pakistan more moderate after seizing power in 1999, it was immediately undermined by the military’s close working relationship with Islamic groups and reliance on them to pursue its regional objectives.
His reign was largely unsuccessful at curbing violence, and he was replaced by Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the PPP and widower of Benazir Bhutto, in 2008. Zardari has been associated with gross corruption since the beginnings of his political career, and that truly autonomous politicians unconstrained by religious and military constituencies are rare in Pakistan, and them having the ability to act unhindered without retribution is even rarer.
Reasons for the amplification of fundamentalist Islam and its current place in Pakistan
While the government directly funded and empowered religious groups, there are certain features of Pakistani statehood that made the populace particularly receptive to its influence and extremism.
Though all nations have in some ways been arbitrarily delineated and experience tensions between national and international pulls, in Pakistan this disparity is particularly salient, owing to the country’s structural weakness, the indeterminacy of its political boundaries, and the early onset of authoritarianism which made resorting to Islam a desirable last resort. Fundamentalist Islam in particular is incompatible with nationalism, and the influential Jaam-e-Islami was founded partially in response to the “Western” construction of nationalism. Islamism has thrived in Pakistan based on its lack of consensus regarding ideology and identity, the search for which has been delayed by opportunistic political groups and individuals.
Apart from Islam being a convenient substitute for nation-state building, the failure of domestic political economies and policies has done much to alienate populations and push them to religion, which has historically found fertile ground where oppressive circumstances are present.
A move towards economic liberalisation that began with Ayub Khan increased the gap between rich and poor, unemployment and corruption are rampant, and Pakistanis have few economic or political options. Sectarian violence and jihadist terrorism have become a condition of life in Pakistan, so much so that Pakistan has been branded a failed state by some Western observers. It has also been commented often that the desperate conditions faced by most people leave them with no option but to turn but to extremist religious politics.
Secular parties have failed at developing Pakistan and improving living conditions, and their candidates have consistently turned out to be incompetent, nepotistic, and corrupt. In 1986, the government allocated 33.9% of total expenditures to defence, 3.2% to education, and less than 1% to health (World Bank 1986). This distribution did not improve much in the following decade.
Annual GDP growth in the 1990s averaged only 4% a year, while military spending in the same time period averaged 30% of GDP, an amount far above the 1990 global mean of roughly 3.7%. The meagre economic growth was not enough to keep up with population increase and, more alarmingly, it was squandered on weapons and soldiers instead of going to infrastructure, jobs, and productive education.
The UNDP 1991 Human Development Report noted that a key factor contributing to lack of growth has been Pakistan’s neglect of social development issues. It is unsurprising then, that madrassas which charge no fees and provide free food and clothing are an extremely attractive option for young men in Pakistan.
This phenomenon is particularly noteworthy when analyzing the most conflictual region of Pakistan: the tribal areas of NWFP and Baluchistan near the Afghan border, where one child in three still dies before their 5th birthday. It is also the strongest foothold of the Taliban. The Taliban targets tribal leaders through intimidation and assassination, and more than 200 Waziri leaders who resisted Taliban domination were reported murdered by Taliban agents in 2005 and 2006.
The traditional tribal structure that the Pakistani government sought to alter since the 1970s has been destabilized, with dangerous consequences.
In the face of poverty, anti-Westernism swelled and the lure of the ‘pure’ Islamic tradition grew strong. This drama unfolds in one of the world’s least developed regions, which unfortunately traps it further in a cycle of violence that sucks up the limited funds trickling into the area and prevents necessary investment in even the most basic infrastructure. An anecdote regarding last year’s flooding illustrates the shocking extent of corruption in Pakistan: politicians disassembled dams and risked putting entire towns under water in order to protect their own lands.
Since 2000, extremist presence has spread and strengthened. President Musharaff relied on Jamiat Ulama-i-Islam—a particularly religious group even by Pakistani standards—to govern Baluchistan, viewing it as an indispensable partner in provincial and national assemblies. American officials noted that Pakistan’s sporadic, grudging cooperation with regards to extremists reinforced the view that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are more in touch with what is going on in the Taliban insurgency than the government lets on publicly.
Though militant groups were outlawed in 2002 following an attack on Indian parliament, the military remained ambivalent and extremist religious groups resurfaced within a month—with new names— continuing their activities with relative impunity.
Organisation is becoming more streamlined as well: the formation of the Tekrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007 by various Taliban groups effectively brought together 27 Taliban groups under one umbrella. The union was viewed as an attempt to pursue Talibanization in Pakistan while conducting a ‘defensive jihad’ against Pakistani security forces, which are clearly not effective enough to deter the growing and strengthening extremist networks in the country.
A sign of this trend is the progressively more ‘global’ character of the Pakistani Taliban: since late 2004, tactics widely used by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaida fighters started to appear in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area and have since spread widely. Scholars have speculated that a new generation of terrorists seems to have emerged in Pakistan: while most men in Pakistan’s tribal areas grew up carrying arms, it is only in the last few years that they have begun to organise themselves around a Taliban-style Islamic ideology similar to that of their Afghan counterparts. Pakistan’s foreign policy continues to be based largely on the manipulation of Islamic militant groups as tools for covert action, influence, and remote control.
However, this policy is becoming continually less successful and more difficult to manipulate for state purposes since its origins under Zia, and further usurps government authority.
Implications and Challenges
The current situation in Pakistan does not augur well. There is little prospect that the security establishment will crack down on the Taliban when it both helped create it and continues to be intertwined with it.
Despite the religious fanaticism sweeping across Pakistan, which has cost the lives of two liberal-minded governors in the past year, the military still believes it can hastily engage with militant groups.
In retrospect, the project embarked upon in the 1970s in pursuit of domestic stability and foreign policy initiatives, the social engineering to empower radical Muslim extremists, aided and abetted for a decade by the CIA to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan— championed and sustained by Pakistani leaders—was short-sighted. They believed they could continue the management of strong religious forces indefinitely and to their advantage, but the political momentum of radicalisation appears to have gone beyond the ability of the Pakistani state to contain it, let alone suppress it.
The blow back from decades of policies of empowerment and funding appear too great a challenge for the Pakistani state at present, and its seems that leaders are choosing an easier route of simply acquiescing to and working with religious extremists instead of the more difficult role of actively opposing them. Considering the intense volatility of the region, this is likely to have grave consequences. More broadly, the dynamic encountered in Pakistan has been repeated throughout the world numerous times (pre-Pinochet Chile’s polarized society, language politics in Sri Lanka, Quebec’s FLQ, etc): elites cannot maintain their grip on ideologies and groups that they had been utilizing instrumentally as they snowball out of control.
However, it is unproductive to view the situation as completely lost. Though less support for the Taliban would mean a re-definition of the role of Pakistan in the region and a revival of the debate regarding the nature of the Pakistani nation, sustained commitment from domestic elites and international allies could encourage a move towards this direction, however much change of policy, ruling configuration, and ideology it would require.
The permissive circumstances that allow the Taliban to thrive (a weak state, a low level of economic development, and disillusionment with the state, to provide a few) must be confronted, not with rhetoric and empty promises, but with action- and not vacillating, half-hearted measures, but strong and consistent Pakistani military action wherever required and at whatever cost. The Pakistani government must work to definitively disassociate itself from extremist groups and establish its own effective, secular, and professional bureaucratic cadre.
While international forces may help, real progress can only come from within Pakistan, namely, a promotion of more moderate political parties, a dialogue with tribal elders, and selective investment in education that is not solely religious, and infrastructure that improves the day to day lives of local people. The final goal is perhaps the most important, as the point at which citizens feel that state institutions provide them with better prospects than religious groups is also the point at which the scale will tilt to favour the government against extremists. An implication that all governments can take away is that productive investment in human capital and standards of living is a strategy that will not come back to haunt the state, as many instances of ethnic, nationalist, and religious mobilizations have done.